How do animals in the wild avoid eating anything poisonous?

Answer by Rory Young:

Animals either know instinctively what not to eat or they learn from experience by trying and learning or they are taught or all of these, depending on the animal.

Regarding instinct, let’s look at the Cape Buffalo as an example. They know instinctively that grass is edible and that it tastes good. They are unlikely to try eating leaves or anything else unless starving, in which case they will often attempt to eat plants that wouldn’t normally appeal to them and can die from attempting to eat poisonous plants.

For animals eating plants that they are not used to let’s look at Impala. They are browsers and there are many different species of plants to choose from, literally hundreds in their habitat. Impala and other antelope always nibble a tiny bit of a plant before feeding on it. As poisonous plants are usually bitter they will discover that in the first nibble and move on. This way they learn which plants are the best to eat. They also do this because many plants are known to use tannin when browsed upon  to make themselves unpalatable. One tree species that has been studied and shown to do this is the Mopani. See: http://www.resource-ecology.org/…

Lastly lets look at elephants. Because elephants only absorb as little as five percent of the nutrients of what they eat, they need a wide variety of foods (and a large quantity) to get all the nutrients they need. All elephants grow up in the herd and learn from their elders not only what can and can’t be eaten but also where to go at what time of year to find certain foods. They will even dig up minerals from the ground in order to supplement their diets. I recommend Cynthia Moss’ Elephant Memories as a great read if you want to know more about this and other behaviour of African Elephants.

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